For North Korean athletes, the prospect of failure on the big stage carries a punishment far worse than a damaged ego. Having failed to land a single medal in South Korea so far, its Winter Olympic team could suffer the same fate as previous under-performing athletes – imprisonment in one of the country’s gulags.
The most infamous case is that of the North Korean football team which made history for reaching the second round of the 1966 World Cup. Former leader Kim Il-Sung is widely believed to have ordered them to be arrested and sent to prison after they lost to 5-3 Portugal days after they were seen drinking with local women in public.
North Korean defector Kang Chol-Hwan claims he met some of the team while they were being held in Yodok prison, or Camp 15, usually reserved for political prisoners. In his tell-all book The Aquariums of Pyongyang, he asserts that footballer Pak Seung-Zin became infamous for his ability to endure torture.
After the 2010 World Cup, FIFA was forced to investigate claims another North Korean football team were “punished” after being thrashed 7-0 by Portugal.
North Korea expert Toshimitsu Shigemura said of the North Korean Olympic team who traveled to Rio 2016 and came back with just two gold medals: “Those who won medals will be rewarded with better housing allocations, better rations… and maybe other gifts from the regime,” adding that athletes who “disappointed” the leader would likely be punished with a downgrade in housing, reduced rations and even “being sent to the coal mines”.
Defector Kim Hyeong-Soo, who fled the country in 2009, has also said both athletes and coaches were punished to months of hard labor if they did not live up to expectations.
[The Sun – UK]